title card for plagiarism article

So I’ve been writing some guidelines for the Department of Education’s new blog, to help first-time and less experienced writers avoid plagiarism. At first it was just a very short subsection of the larger guide for contributors, saying something along the lines of, “Don’t steal stuff and pretend it’s yours.”

Then I thought about it a little. Then I thought about it a little more. It’s now a completely separate guide.

The truth is, avoiding plagiarism, particularly plagiarism of ideas is very difficult. Difficult to do, and difficult to detect and prove.

I’ll give you a couple examples of how.

Be different

What the Hell is the Idea, Anyway?

A while back I was talking to my friend about modern warfare tactics, and how closely analogous they are to the factions in Starcraft. In Starcraft, which is a game for those of you who spend their time on more productive things, there are the Terrans (humans) who are extremely loosely confederated, mobile, and fairly wimpy, the Protoss, an advanced race that utilizes training, superior technology, mobile tactics, and drones to take on their more numerous enemies, and the zerg, who just bury everyone in hordes of cheap units. We decided that the Terrans were a good analog for modern terrorist organization, the Protoss playbook is basically the Western world’s, too, and the zerg were the Chinese.

Here’s where that gets interesting. The Zerg were borrowed from Warhammer, where they were called the Tyranids, which were borrowed from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where they were called “bugs” (or arachnids) and were . . . a deliberate metaphor for the Chinese.

The point of this little anecdote is that ideas sometimes transcend themselves. Someone says, “I want these bugs to be a metaphor for a really big army that has no value on personal survival.” Someone else says, “Hordes of sentient hive-mind bugs versus space marines, AWESOME!” Then someone says, “Let’s take those space-bugs from that one tabletop game, change ’em up a bit, and put them in our video game.”

Then, somewhere down the line, someone thinks, “Those hive-minded space bug hordes actually reflect Chinese battle doctrine pretty well!”

But, if we’re talking about ideas and the theft of ideas then what’s the idea here? The guys who made the video game weren’t looking to make any metaphors about communism or the tactics of populous countries with low incomes, they just wanted something cool for their future-soldiers to shoot up. Somewhere in there, that concept gave birth to the 80s classic Aliens, too. Clearly, they unintentionally also carried the original idea with them, but they managed to do something fun and unique with the concept, as well. And, indeed, Robert Heinlein may have invented space marines vs. BUGS! but that’s now one of the most stable tropes in existence, up there with Tolkein-esque orcs vs. humans vs. elves.

Was the idea the battle between libertarian individualism and communism? Or bugs vs. soldiers? The answer is yes, obviously, but it’s simply too large an idea to own exactly, isn’t it. So the problem becomes, where’s the line? Clearly, Starcraft isn’t Starship Troopers, and yet it’s very interesting that it stayed similar enough to maintain subtext. For that matter, there’s no shortage of later sci-fi franchises who call their interplanetary government “The Federation.”

Clearly, there is a problem of finesse and intent, here.

The Stairway to (1600s) Heaven

There’s this problem with the Led Zepplin masterpiece Stairway to Heaven. Namely, that they blatantly stole it from one of their opening acts. Not the words, mind you, but the chord progression. So they’re being sued by the other band.  Here’s a comparison to Spirit’s Taurus:

They’ve got a pretty good case, right? Well, okay, except here’s a tune from 1959 with basically the same progression:

But wait! Here it is in an Ella Fitzgerald song:

But wait! Spirit should actually be suing Giovanni Battista Granata, who plagiarized the song for his composition “Sonata di Chittarra” in . . . 1600:

This is a growing challenge in the modern world ; chances are you’ll never have an idea so weird and unique that it hasn’t passed through the head of at least one other person somewhere in the world. No matter what you write, long or short, it’s guaranteed there is already something thematically similar, somewhere, at times.

I wrote a series of short stories in 2004-6 about a future war. They weren’t very good, because I was a teenager, but I thought they had some promise. The main character was an enhanced soldier named John Sheppard. The series was collected together as Sheppard’s War, and, while it didn’t involve any aliens, a central theme was the complex relationship between humans and synthetic AI creations. Then Mass Effect came out, was a huge hit, and starred a main character named John Sheppard and a central arc largely focused on the relationship between organic and synthetic life. So . . . technically I beat Bioware to the punch, but if I ever flesh out those stories and turn them into a decent book, I’ll need to change the main character’s name to avoid people saying it’s a blatant ripoff.

Them’s the breaks.

So Then What’s Plagiarism, Anyway?

If all the ideas are out there, and most creative enterprises will inevitably tread ground that’s already been traveled, what is plagiarism?

At the end of the day, it’s about ethics. It’s about doing your level best to be unique, and never intentionally steal. Sometimes, it’s about having the good grace to cede your perfectly good idea that you came up with on your own to someone else who thought of it independently. But, really, it’s as simple as according other people’s hard work with the same respect you wish they would your own.

It’s not so much the ideas as what you do with them: The Lion King is a retelling of Hamlet, but it’s unquestionably a unique creation. The zerg are not the tyranids, are not the formics, are not the bugs. There’s a sort of evolutionary process at work, where, at a certain point, a thing becomes a unique thing from the thing that came before, but it’s a slow transition. There was not a monkey, then a man, there was a thing a little less like a monkey than a man, then another, then another, then a thousand more others, and then there was something that was definitely a man and not a monkey.

At the end of the day, like most things we actually deal with, it’s a judgment call, and usually, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know the right answer to whatever particular nuanced version of the same problem we’re dealing with.

Which makes a “How to Avoid Plagiarism” guide a bloody pain to write. There are, of course, many great guides already out there to work from, but I’m adapting the concept to cover the key problems for a small subset of casual writers.

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2 Thoughts on “The Ethics and Complexities of Plagiarism”

  • Right vs. wrong may get slippery now and then, but at the end of the day, most of us can tell honest from dishonest. Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land, said something about how there are only six basic plots and storytellers have been recycling them at least since they started writing them down. On the other hand, if you want an example where the second person to use an idea might have at least tipped his hat to another writer, compare The Claws that Catch by John Ringo and Travis Taylor with The Tar-Aym Krang by Alan Dean Foster.

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